Department of Education

Breaking down barriers in Washington’s public schools

Zaneta Han UEP ’09 has played a crucial role in removing barriers to a good education for underserved students in Washington, D.C.

For Zaneta Han, the path to Brown — and to a career in urban education policy — began in a classroom in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

After Han finished her undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia, Teach for America sent her to teach math at a middle school on Charlotte’s diverse east side. It was Han’s  first experience in an urban school environment: She had grown up on a military base and attended U.S. Department of Defense schools as a child. For the first time, she had a clear view of the adversities faced by students from low-income, urban neighborhoods — and the disparity between those students’ educational opportunities and those of their wealthier neighbors.

“I didn’t believe the potential of my students in East Charlotte was any less than the potential of the students in South Charlotte,” a higher-income part of the city, Han said. “They simply didn’t have the same resources and opportunities available to them.”

Over the course of her three years teaching in Charlotte, Han realized that local policy drove much of the inequality she saw. She began to envision a career that would allow her to effect change not just in one classroom but in entire schools, perhaps even entire school districts. Finally, spurred by a fellow schoolteacher who revealed that she had regretted not pursuing a master’s degree earlier in life, Han began researching master’s degree programs in education policy.

“I looked at master’s programs across the country, and while several programs focused on education policy, what drew me to Brown was its focus on urban education specifically,” Han said.

In the fall of 2008, she joined an intimate, diverse cohort of urban education policy students at Brown. Today, a decade after receiving her degree, Graves says the knowledge and experience she gained at Brown allowed her to follow her twin passions for education and equal opportunity.

After graduation from Brown, Han was hired in an administrative position in the Office of Human Capital within the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) district. Today, she still works within the district, serving as director of strategy and logistics for DCPS’ Oyster-Adams Bilingual School. In eight years at D.C. Public Schools, Han has had a direct hand in improving outcomes for the city’s most underserved students, whether by recruiting better teachers and principals or by identifying and removing barriers to a good education for low-income students.

One of Han’s proudest career moments came a few years ago, when she was director of admissions for DCPS’ McKinley Technology High School. Tasked with diversifying the student body at the school, whose test scores and graduation rates are higher than the city average, Han looked for opportunities to remove barriers to enrollment for students from low-income households. “I learned that to enroll your child, families had to provide proof of address in person,” she said. “Families would show up with incorrect documentation, and they would be turned away and asked to return with the right papers. But for many families without salaried jobs, taking unpaid time off work twice was a mountain too high to climb.”

Han and her team worked with the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), Washington’s state education department, to change the re-enrollment process. Today, families are no longer required to submit paperwork in person — and as a result, McKinley Technology High School’s student body is more economically diverse than ever.

“In an ideal world, all district work should be like that — looking at what barriers are in place at low-performing schools and how we as a district office can remove these barriers,” Han said.

Han believes that the hands-on education she received at Brown helped pave the way for career successes like these. While in the UEP program, she and a fellow student had the opportunity to serve as consultants as Providence Public Schools transitioned from a largely seniority-driven teacher hiring system to one that focused on merit-based hiring instead.

“Being in that room, being able to tackle a problem that was going to have a direct impact on students — that was a very meaningful experience,” Han said. 

In the classroom and in study sessions, Han said she was especially grateful for the UEP program’s small cohort size: It made for a collaborative, rather than cutthroat, environment.

“It was tight knit,” she said of her cohort. “If we were struggling with a statistics class or economics class, it wasn’t uncommon for us to organize study groups and work together. We wanted to make sure we all understood the material.”

Many years later, Han still values collaboration above all else. 

“When I first started working at the Office of Human Capital in D.C. Public Schools, I was looking at schools with a deficit model in mind — I was thinking, ‘Why is this registrar not doing her job?’” she said. “Every administrator wants to do their job well. Every student wants to be successful. You need to push yourself to build relationships with them and understand the struggles they’re going through.”